Growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens inside a community.
That’s why many organizations create communities of practice (CoP)—powerful, collaborative networks that drive knowledge sharing and learning.
This comprehensive post will guide you through the intricacies of CoPs, starting with the definition, benefits, and purpose. We will also cover the principles behind designing a successful CoP and lay out a step-by-step guide to creating one.
We hope this resource will help you understand not only why you need a community of practice, but also how to build one that remains a vibrant source of learning and growth for your audiences.
What is a community of practice?
A community of practice (CoP) is a group of individuals with shared interests or professions, where members come together to engage in collective learning, knowledge sharing, and networking.
The concept of a CoP, developed by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, highlights the social and experiential aspects of learning. Members of a CoP interact regularly, discussing challenges, sharing insights, and learning from each other's experiences. (If you’d like to learn more about Lave and Wenger’s work, you can read their article in the Harvard Business Review.)
Consider a group of customer service representatives from a company like Amazon. By forming a CoP, they can exchange stories from their daily interactions with customers, share effective resolution strategies, and learn collectively. This process not only enhances their individual skills but also contributes to effective knowledge management within the organization.
Similarly, a CoP can span beyond one company as individuals form communities around a common professional interest. For example, educators across various institutions might create a CoP to discuss pedagogical innovations, contributing to a broader evolution of teaching practices.
Essentially, communities of practice are powerful tools for fostering continuous learning, enhancing shared understanding, and contributing to collective knowledge in a specific domain.
The three pillars of a community of practice
At the heart of every CoP are three foundational elements, often referred to as the three pillars. These are the domain, community, and practice.
The domain: shared interest
The shared interest, or particular domain, is what brings people together. It could be a specific skill, like Python coding, or an industry, like renewable energy. The domain defines the group's focus, like how a digital marketers' CoP may focus on search engine optimization (SEO).
The community: relationships and interactions
These are the individuals in the CoP who engage in discussions, share information, help each other, and learn together.
The practice: shared body of knowledge
This involves the shared body of knowledge and resources that members of a CoP develop together. In a CoP, practice isn't just about what we traditionally view as 'practical' skills—it encompasses the tools, frameworks, experiences, stories, and documents that the community members share. For example, a CoP of data scientists might develop a shared library of machine learning algorithms, a repository of data cleaning scripts, or a set of best practices for data visualization.
💡 CoPs can be integrated into your overall knowledge management strategy by providing a platform for collaborative learning. You can tap into the expertise and experiences of your teams, encourage continuous learning, and promote innovation within your organization.
Types and purposes of communities of practice
Communities of practice come in various shapes and sizes. These communities have diverse purposes and leverage the concept of situated learning. Here are three common types:
Professional communities of practice
These communities bring together individuals who work in the same profession or field. Think of a group of doctors from different hospitals who meet regularly to discuss the latest medical advancements or challenging patient cases.
💡 The purpose of these communities is to foster continuous professional development, share industry-specific knowledge, and improve standards within the profession. They often facilitate the creation of new knowledge and best practices, thereby enhancing the entire field.
Corporate learning communities of practice
Communities of practice in a workplace adhere to a learning model that emphasizes knowledge sharing and experiential learning. They can be formal or informal communities where employees learn from each other by sharing knowledge and experiences. For instance, a technology company like Microsoft might have a CoP for its software engineers to discuss new coding practices or troubleshoot complex problems.
💡 The main goal here is to enhance organizational learning, increase productivity, and foster innovation. They help companies to adapt quickly to changes and maintain a competitive edge in their industry.
Non-professional communities of practice
These are informal groups of individuals united by a shared hobby or interest. This could be a local gardening club or an online gaming community of practice.
💡 Communities of practice focus on the joy of shared interest, personal growth, and mutual support. For instance, a book club (a CoP for literature enthusiasts) provides a platform for members to explore different genres, understand various perspectives, and enrich their reading experience.
The benefits of a community of practice
A well-run CoP provides many benefits, both to the members and the people who run the community.
Increase their knowledge
Communities of practice encourage professional development. Newcomers can learn from the entire library of previous discussions and resources. While experts can bounce ideas off other people at a similar stage of learning.
Improve their reputation
Being active in a CoP can improve a member’s reputation in their industry. All answered questions, discussion contributions, and shared content help build their authority and position them as a thought leader.
Build a bigger network
Communities of practice are ready-made networks of people in a shared field. By joining a community, each member gains access to this network. This is especially helpful if the member lacks networking opportunities. For example, if they live in a remote location or if other commitments affect their ability to network.
Find career or job opportunities
More extensive networks and increased industry authority can lead to better career opportunities. People who see your expertise through your posts may hire you to do a specific job. Many communities of practice actively advertise jobs to community members.
Organizations can also benefit from communities of practice. Here is how:
Build brand awareness
Starting a CoP is an excellent way to build brand awareness among people in your industry. The more value and positive experiences you provide to members, the more people will look positively at your brand.
Access deeper industry insight
You also gain deeper insight into the industry you work in. You’ll see the challenges people face and the solutions they are currently using. This can help with everything from product development to marketing.
Improve knowledge management
Internal or employee communities of practice are a valuable way to improve an organization’s ability to manage vast amounts of knowledge. Encouraging members to ask questions and share information ensures employees have access to knowledge from throughout your organization.
Examples of communities of practice
There are many examples of communities of practice in a variety of fields and industries.
They range from global groups with hundreds of thousands of members to niche communities with just a handful of collaborators. And they could be anything from in-person communities to groups on social sites like Linkedin.
Here are some CoP examples that span this range:
Coachhub, a talent development platform founded in 2018 that offers personalized, measurable, and scalable coaching programs for the entire workforce of an organization launched a community for their coaches. The community acts as a central hub for coaches and helps them build stronger relationships and exchange knowledge.
The community also empowers the coaches to network, uplift, and help one another. Of course, the Coachhub team shares educational resources in the community to elevate the skills of the coaches too.
The Klaus community is a space for customer support professionals. It’s a platform where members can connect and learn from each other about customer support best practices.
The community is run by Klaus, a customer support quality assurance tool. But it’s open to anyone, whether they are a customer or not. Klaus team members are active in the community and are happy to share their expertise.
This is a great example of how a brand can create a community to build its authority in its industry. Every member who joins to learn about customer support indirectly learns about Klaus’s software.
Stack Overflow is a huge online programming CoP. Members join to ask and answer questions as well as to learn from previously discussed content. The community is so large that it now has many sub-communities dedicated to a specific programming language.
It’s a great example of how a CoP can generate a valuable content library over time. This type of library helps attract new members who want access to the knowledge it contains.
And while new people may initially join the community to learn, they may start sharing their expertise once they become embedded in it. This flywheel effect further builds the community’s library of content.
Principles for designing a successful community of practice
Building an effective CoP is much more than bringing people together. It's about nurturing a space where shared learning and growth can happen. Here are seven guiding principles for designing a CoP that Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder shared in an excerpt from their book (published by Cambridge University Press).
Design for evolution
Community development is dynamic. A CoP changes and grows over time. When you're establishing a CoP, keep it flexible. Think of it as a garden that will evolve naturally—plant the seeds, but allow for natural growth. A CoP can initially form around a shared interest and later evolve into a community focused on gaining knowledge related to a specific set of skills or subject matter.
Let the community guide the pace of these changes. A CoP in a fast-paced field like cybersecurity, for example, must continuously evolve to address emerging threats and technologies.
Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
Every community benefits from fresh ideas. Inviting guest speakers, organizing cross-departmental sessions, or even having members attend conferences can bring in outside perspectives that stimulate new thinking. A CoP for teachers, for instance, might invite an educational psychologist to share insights, enhancing the community's understanding of student behavior.
Invite different levels of participation
In any community of practice, some members will be more active than others—and that's okay. Encourage a range of participation levels, from core members who drive activities, to community lurkers who learn by observing. An organization's CoP might have a few dedicated leaders planning workshops, while others join just to listen and learn.
Develop both public and private community spaces
Create spaces for large group interactions (public) and smaller, more personal exchanges (private). For example, an online gaming CoP might have a public forum for general game strategies, and private chat rooms for teams to coordinate their game plans.
Focus on value
Community membership should provide a high level of value, whether it's learning a new skill, solving a problem, or simply building relationships. A CoP for marketing professionals, for example, could host a workshop on using data analytics, delivering tangible value to its members.
Combine familiarity and excitement
Regular activities provide a comforting rhythm, while occasional surprises keep CoP members engaged. A book club CoP might follow a predictable monthly book discussion but could also arrange surprise author meet-and-greets.
Create a rhythm for community members
Every community of practice has its beat. Some might have daily interactions, others might meet monthly. The rhythm should match the community's purpose and the members' availability. A CoP for busy entrepreneurs, for instance, might stick to a bi-weekly rhythm that respects members' time constraints.
How to start and run a community of practice
Cultivating communities of practice isn’t easy. Here are five steps you can take to ensure you set off in the right direction:
Identify the community
The first step to creating a CoP is identifying a core group of people that will benefit from one. This could be an existing informal network that you are part of, or it could be a group you think would enjoy being part of a new community that would then form the core group of your CoP as it gets off the ground.
Identify the value
Next, you need to think about the value your community will bring to community members. Having a solid value offering is the only way to ensure people will join your community and then keep coming back.
Your value proposition could be:
Access to a specific network
Invitations to community events or discussions
Access to learning resources like courses or lectures.
When you start out, it helps to be specific. Potential members should have an excellent idea about what they get when they join the community. If the value is strong enough, you’ll end up with a thriving community of practitioners where members engage, learn from each other, and grow together.
The lack of value is a community killer.
There are two fundamental value-related problems that communities suffer from. Either you don't have a strong value proposition or your value proposition doesn't match members' expectations.
Here are the most important signs of having a value-related issue in communities and what you can do to fix them:
Signs of value-related problems in your community
People have no reason to join your community over another one
Differentiate your community by making your offer more specific
People don’t understand why they should join your community
Improve your marketing
Sometimes people simply don’t need what you are offering
Provide more value by creating learning resources, scheduling expert speakers, etc.
You promise things that your community doesn’t actually offer.
Don’t oversell the community. Consider either changing your marketing or adding more value.
You have members with tons of knowledge, but it’s not clear what they should do once they join the community.
Improve the structure of your community and create rules for moderation.
Provide the platform
Next, you need to provide the platform or space where your community will operate. If you’re starting an online community, you’ll need software that will host your community. This could be anything from a dedicated community platform to a social media group.
If your community is offline, you’ll need to organize a meeting space. The exact space will depend on your needs. It could be anything from a small table in a cafe to renting out a lecture hall.
Engage the community
It can be tempting to assume that your community will run automatically once you have members signed up. But this is unlikely to be the case.
You’ll need to put in significant efforts to engage the community and ensure everyone gets value. Here is an article with 70+ community engagement techniques and a webinar recording that highlights engagement strategy that inspires members to participate and share knowledge.
Community facilitators can do this by:
Holding community activities like talks or webinars
Seeding and encouraging discussions
Sending out newsletters highlighting community content
Onboard new members
You need a way to welcome new group members while setting expectations. You can quickly set up a simple two-step process to cover both of these bases.
First, create a list of rules, guidelines, or expectations. These should clearly tell new members what is expected of them in the community, as well as highlight the type of content and actions your community produces.
You could highlight this in a pinned post in your community, email it to new members, or even make them agree to the rules before applying to join.
Then set up a simple first task that any new member can perform. This can be as simple as creating a space for introductions and asking each new member to introduce themselves to the group.
Building a community of practice involves fostering genuine relationships, nurturing a culture of learning, and consistently providing value. But, remember, picking the right platform to host your community can make all the difference.
A well-chosen platform encourages engagement, facilitates knowledge sharing, and can dramatically enhance the experience for all members. So, as you venture into creating or growing your CoP, choose wisely and watch your community flourish.
What are the two purposes of communities of practice?
People mainly join a CoP for two reasons: learning and connecting with like-minded folks.
CoPs are fantastic for learning. They're all about sharing knowledge, tips, and advice. Members can ask and answer questions about industry topics, enhancing a shared pool of resources. They can discuss new ideas and gain fresh perspectives. The people running the CoP often create learning resources like webinars, blogs, or even courses. All this contributes to a growing content library for everyone to learn from.
CoPs are also great for professional networking. Whether it's a professional community where connections can boost your career or a hobbyist group where you bond over shared passions, people love interacting with others who share their interests. CoPs provide a perfect space for these connections to flourish.
Are communities of practice usually online or offline?
Communities of practice have always existed, but the internet has made them more accessible. Thanks to digital platforms, people can join groups on virtually any topic and connect with members globally.
Yet, not all CoPs exist solely online. Many community managers mix online and offline interactions, like combining a formal apprenticeship system with casual social gatherings. They might have an online space to communicate, but that's not their only defining feature.
How do I grow a community of practice?
Growing a CoP shares many parallels with cultivating any type of community, where engagement, value, and a sense of belonging take center stage.
Starting with a clear purpose is essential. It not only guides your content but also attracts those with common interests. Once you have that in place, you should foster active participation. This goes hand-in-hand with providing a continuous stream of valuable resources like insightful articles or exclusive webinars. But it doesn't stop there. Strong interpersonal connections form the heart of a CoP, so it's equally crucial to facilitate networking that will help members develop personally and professionally.
As the community develops, keep an eye out for potential leaders who can steer discussions and manage events. Finally, don't rush. Remember, building a community of practice is a gradual process where the focus isn't merely on expanding numbers, but on enhancing the quality of interactions and overall member value.